Updated: Oct 19, 2018
So far, our discussions of Wuyi oolong (Yancha) have been primarily focusing on the taste and the aroma. That’s because these two are the major factors in judging the quality of a Wuyi oolong. The standard of good Wuyi oolong quality has been mostly constant since the inception of oolong. In a tea journal written by Mr. Liang Zhangju (1775-1849), a Chinese politician and author, it says that a good Wuyi oolong should be “floral, refreshing, sweet in aftertaste and alive”. The modern criteria of a perfect Wuyi oolong took Mr. Liang’s opinion to a higher level. We now also judge the “leaf bottom” of a tea. Today, let’s talk about what the “leaf bottom” is and why it’s important.
Leaf bottom, or Ye Di (Chinese: 叶底), is the state of tea leaves after many infusions. In fact, it literally means “finished tea leaves”. But in Chinese, we always prefer a more cultured term for tea. Therefore, we use the name “leaf bottom” to describe this state. The ability to read the leaf bottom is probably one of the most advanced skills in tea-drinking. To dedicated tea lovers, tea bottom is a good indication of the quality of the tea leaves and the tea-making skills.
So, when do we reach this “leaf bottom” state? Is it the state after just one infusion? No, not yet. Calling a tea “reaching the end of its life (the bottom of its life)” is too cruel. Premium teas can last at least ten infusions. Normally, when a tea doesn’t produce any more flavors, the leaf bottom reflects the most realistic nature of tea leaves. In this state, the leaf bottom can tell us many information about the tea-making.
After being infused 9-10 times with boiling water, even the most manipulated tea cannot hide its flaws. True beauty doesn’t need extra makeups to stand out. When a tea is finished, the leaf bottom shows clear signs of a tea’s past.
Of course, understanding the leaf bottom requires a huge amount of experience and lots of practices. The analysis of the leaf bottom often focuses on three major details.
The first detail is the color. Well-made Wuyi oolong has a balanced color. But the color of the leaf bottom depends on how heavy the roast is. A Wuyi oolong without roast or with light roast would display a distinct “three red and seven green” (Chinese: 三红七绿), which mean a leaf is 30% red and 70% green. This is the result of the shaking process (see previous blog here). The 30% and 70% ratio doesn’t mean that after the infusion, 30% of tea leaves are read and 70% of tea leaves are green. This term describes that the edge of a leaf is red and the center is green (yellowish-green). Wuyi oolong tea leaves with a heavier roast carry a darker green color. Heavily roasted tea leaves have a unified green color. If a heavily roasted tea leaves have multiple colors, it’s definitely not a good tea.
After the color, it’s the strength of the leaves that we need to scrutinize. A well-made tea should be always full of energy. Even if it’s infused over and over, it should still be able to be expanded, twisted, bended and folded without deforming or breaking apart. If a tea’s leaf bottom is dry and inelastic, it’s the product of a bad roasting process.
Finally, we need to check how “alive” the leaf bottom is. Leaves should still be soft at the end of its life. It should be tenacious and bright. The “brightness” here means that leaves reflect lights as if they’re emitting lights themselves. “Dead” leaf bottom is almost all dark. Bad tea-making often leads to dead “leaf bottom”. For example, the bad temperature control during the shaking process (see previous blog here), lost control of the residual heat during the roast can all “kill” tea leaves (see previous blog here and here).
The leaf bottom contains all secrets of a Wuyi oolong. Just like people’s skin can often tell the real age. Even if we put on a thick layer of foundation, once the makeup is washed away, our raw skin exposes everything. A good Wuyi oolong has a balanced, soft, alive and resilient leaf bottom; a bad Wuyi oolong has a dry, hard and dark leaf bottom. If you learn how to read the real bottom, you can easily distinguish a good Wuyi oolong from a bad one.
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